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Forced Marriage – Is it a Crime?
The announcement by Prime Minister David Cameron in June that there is to be a criminal offence of forcing someone to marry carrying a sentence of up to five years in prison, is short-sighted and does nothing to help the hundreds of young and vulnerable people affected every year. On the contrary, it runs the risk of deterring those at risk from seeking help in the first place.
To those who have counselled and supported both those who have been forced into marriage and those who have taken steps to avoid it, the primary objective they seek is to be safe from this untenable situation. It is not to punish their parents or other family members. In counselling we often hear the phrases, “They’re not bad people,” “Why can’t they just change?” and “I know why they are doing this.” More than anything, the victims just want to be heard – by the authorities who they wish to protect them and most importantly by their families.
Faced with the choice between reporting abuse and potentially sending their parents to prison or not reporting and taking the suffering onto themselves; many will choose the latter option. Is this the response David Cameron is seeking? South Asian women are brought up to believe that we carry the “izzat” or honour of the family on our shoulders. To so radically challenge this belief system by sending family members to prison, we know where the blame will be placed by the wider community.
This is not a new idea. As members of the working group that lead to the establishment of the Forced Marriage Unit and the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007, we know that a specific criminal offence was discussed at length and rejected. Instead Forced Marriage Prevention Orders (which if breached, can lead to up to six months in prison) together with better education and intervention by statutory authorities were considered more effective solutions.
Little has occurred in the intervening years to suggest otherwise. Rather this type of “sending a message out” legislation serves no purpose other than to make such crimes disappear. Does the fact that there has not been a single prosecution of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), despite this being a criminal offence since 1985, suggest there have been no incidences of this barbaric act in that time?
Perpetrators are not currently acting legally: the law already covers the issue of forced marriage through such offences as rape, kidnap, and assault. The law of the land takes precedence over the cultural or religious values that some might use to defend their actions.
If the Government is serious about tackling the issue of Forced Marriages they would be better served enabling victims to obtain the help they need and want: increased awareness and intervention by schools, social services and the police, knowledge of and contact with Forced Marriage Units at our High Commissions and Embassies and, perhaps most importantly someone to listen to them and made their voices heard.
I didn’t have an arranged marriage. It wasn’t that I was against the idea: in my mid-twenties and not in a relationship, I could accept that marrying someone who came from the same background as me was a way of ensuring a successful relationship. No, what put me off the whole process was what happened after my parents started “looking” for somebody.
In the next few months, I was introduced to a variety of young men and their families. In that time, my height was considered, as was my skin tone. I was “informed” about where and how I was expected to live, what I should eat and even told that when, in a hypothetical future, my hypothetical husband got a new job I would be expected to up sticks and move.
I was never asked my own opinion of what my expectations might be. Did I want to have children? Did I want to live in a joint family? Did I have strong religious feelings? How important was my career? What kind of man did I want to marry? What kind of a person was I?
The whole thing became academic when I met the man I was eventually to marry. Some of the issues I encountered, however, are worth considering. When Asian people get married by traditional or non-traditional methods, just how much do we really know about our future spouses and how much thought are we putting into exactly what the realities of marriages within our cultures are?
Let’s be honest, weddings are expensive; and all too easily people can get carried away with planning more and more functions, with more and more designer outfits, and more and more expensive jewellery. It’s easy to get carried away with thinking too much about the wedding and not enough about the marriage. Times are changing and with them the attitudes of people.
One example is in care of the elderly. Traditionally, this has been undertaken by people’s sons; and even some feelings of shame felt by those who had to be looked after by their daughters. The reality of 21st Century Britain is, for a variety of reasons, care is increasingly, undertaken by daughters. This may be because of geographical location, unwillingness or inability of sons (and daughters-in-law) to step into the role or simply because of personal choice. Whatever the reasons, it is at least worth talking frankly about the issue hopefully years before matters become urgent and conflicts arise.
The Asian Family Counselling Service, with offices in Southall and Birmingham, provides Pre-Marital Counselling for couples who are contemplating marriage. They counsel couples who have arranged marriages, love marriages, who come from different religious backgrounds or who come from different communities. Experience has shown that open and frank discussions about the various issues involved in modern marriages leads to strong and resilient relationships.
For further information or to book an appointment phone on 020 8571 3933/ 020 8813 9714/0121 454 1130.